Rapar taluka (Gujarat), June 19 (2002)
Morning 8.30 in Bhuj (read "Bhuj: sun, sand and more sun" I'm searching for this story of mine) is a quiet time and just about warm as I set out to Rapar taluka with Mahesh driving me down. It is a two and a half-hour drive to Rapar, one of the worst affected talukas in Gujarat in the earthquake of 2001. Bhuj taluka too suffered lots of damages but comparatively, the Bhuj people have leapt back to normal life. Rapar still continues to be one of the backward areas of Gujarat, struggling even to meet day-to-day needs.
My journey begins along a road, well-metalled as most other roads in this place are, and prolong through acres and acres of dry barren land dotted with keekar, bawar and other desert vegetation.
Mahesh tells me that 60 per cent of the population of Bhuj work outside Gujarat, mostly in big cities like Ahmedabad, Surat or Mumbai or even abroad. “My father’s two elder brothers are in London engaged in travel business and one of my cousins is in Nairobi. People here have enough money. Our house got damaged in the earthquake but we managed to repair and rebuild parts of it. Even my father was abroad…, he came back 20 years ago.” He proudly tells me bank balances of Bhuj families would put to shame even those belonging to posh areas of Delhi or Mumbai.
He points out spots on the road that had developed cracks due to the quake. There are bridges on the way, which too are being rebuilt. The highway to Bhachau, Rapar and Anjar from Bhuj were all clogged last year as hoards of people, terrified after the quake’s impact, left home and hearth and shifted. Mostly they work in shops or do petty business in cities, having given up whatever little agriculture that they practised.
So what do they eat and how do they survive? Well, most of the times, vegetables, rice and wheat come from towns. Brahmins, known as maharaj, and Patels are vegetarian. Only darbars or Rajputs eat some poultry. Even dalits do not. Muslims of course eat non-vegetarian food, depending on its supply. “Is there any tension between Hindus and Muslims?” I ask, immediately realising the cliché I am always caught into. Mahesh, a Patel, smiles, “No, not in this taluka, or even in Rapar… Once in 15 years may be, chhota mota jhagda (small fights), not what you see elsewhere, not in Kutchch.’
It is quite amazing to see this vast expanse of land, a desert of shrubs and brown rocks, sometimes undulating and even hilly in feature, that stretch beyond one’s vision like a great brown sea to the horizon. Rapar is closer to the Little Rann of Kutchch and hence, is drier and hotter.
The road leads us into Bhachau, another taluka that registered massive onslaught of the earthquake. Bhachau still has heaps of rubble and debris and rows of broken houses that have still not been cleared. I look at the Bhachau village. The people have evacuated on to a different site close by, some have gone away to Surat or Ahmedabad to work, sending their families off to Bhuj. Half of Bhachau still stands as a ghost town.
Villagers in Radhanpura, Khirai and Chitrod villages have similar tales to tell. It is not that rehabilitation has not been carried out. There are colonies of houses of all designs and shapes built by agencies of all possible shades- the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government, the Ramakrishna Mission, Larsen and Toubro, the Rajasthan government (this was recently inaugurated by Congress president Sonia Gandhi), NGO-industry collaborations and what have you. The villagers, especially those that are really poor, have indeed been benefited. They had never dreamt of making such pakka houses ever in their lives. It is the middle income segment in Bhuj or the well to do in Ahmedabad that have incurred losses running into lakhs and crores as their concrete houses tumbled.
“The earthquake did not leave a pattern in attacking the buildings,” said Nirali Mehta, a resident of Bhuj and my guide in Rapar. “While very tall water tanks and some high rise structures in Bhuj did not fall or even show cracks, small single storied buildings were flattened. Village people were all the more benefited because they got new hospitals and schools.”
Most villages around Rapar had houses built of massive stones. Stones for the poor of Rapar are the easily available materials for building houses, as rocky structures abound in the hilly slopes around Rapar. Little did they know that the killer quake would strike with such intensity, bringing down their homes.
Somewhere in the middle of everything there are striking patches of greenery. Some look like lush crops, others sway by the roadside, painting the picture of an oasis before my tired eyes. “The crop looking things are fodder for cattle, ” says Mahesh, adding, “the greens flanking the road is bawar, a plant that grows anywhere and very fast. The seeds of bawar were strewn from helicopter during Indira Gandhi’s time because they thought this is good for social forestry. Once the bawar grows it looks lush green. But we know it is very bad for the soil, it makes the soil even drier and its roots do not come off easily. Now they are trying to slash and burn it all down, in an attempt to clear it completely. ”
I am stunned by the semi desert landscape and before I recover totally, I am led into a dusty lane housing the Save the Children (SC) office of Rapar. In this taluka the SC is building a number of integrated child care development service centres (ICDS) or anganwadi as these are locally known as, balwadis, primary health centres, and health service centres. It is a huge project and in most cases, the land has been donated by villagers themselves.
Although Rapar is comparatively backward than Bhuj, in the town there are a good number of people obtain income mainly from members working in big cities or in foreign lands. It is not unusual for a Rapar town resident to own 5-6 well turned out concrete buildings, rent them out or lend out stuff in credit for as much as Rs 3-4 lakh.
But Fatehgadh, the largest village in Rapar which has a population of about 8-10 thousand, have living conditions that may be called squalid. The people here are mostly dependent on subsistence agriculture that takes place one time in a year as rainfall is scant and on cattle rearing. “They mostly grow some wheat or jowar or bajra, if rains are satisfactory,” says Rajib Satapathi of SC Rapar office, “They even grow jeera (cumin seeds), as cash crop, to earn more money. Or else they sell milk.”
Vegetables come from Rapar main market or Bhuj and they are painfully limited in variety. About 50 per cent cattle had perished in droughts and the subsequent quake, hence cattle rearing has also become tough for villagers. It is regular to have drinking water delivered by tankers. “Often if we have got a tanker for our construction purpose, it is taken away by villagers. What can you say in matters of water scarcity!” Rajib says.
While NRI money seems to be controlling the fate of Bhuj in Kutchch, Rapar and Anjar talukas particularly do not seem to be offering any quality life for its people. It is only natural that education and health care among the people is also abysmally low. In fact, the PHC that SC is building in Fatehgadh village, would be the first of its kind in this area. The plan has been developed in consultation with the community. Villagers would have 24 hours access to doctors, medicines, complete with male and female wards.
The anganwadi in Fatehgadh too looks impressive. The most significant aspect of it is that the structure has been developed after exclusively consulting the children of the village. Anganwadis are traditional children’s schools and training centres which also provide them pre-school teaching and provide nutrition. Gujarat has an impressive anganwadi movement. Taking off from there, SC planned its intervention after the earthquake devastated several of such anganwadi buildings, health centres etc and devised a child-centric programme.
From the terrace of the near completed PHC I am shown the dusty roads leading to Devisar village. The residents settled there after the 1971 war. The approach to the village is not good, there is no electricity in Devisar, but almost 60 per cent households have telephones, thanks again to NRI connections. After Fatehgadh, there are mines where Devisar residents work. White soil is excavated for making porcelain which is mainly exported. There is some coal mining too, I am told.
On the way back again Rapar landscape numbs my mind. I see a couple of cowherds assembling fodder for their livestock, cross busy Bhachau shops in tin shades (now that they are scared to build stone structures), look at that vast expanse of coarse brown land clinically halved by the metalled road – a land that is without a single drop of water below or any speck of shadow of a rain cloud above. Despite such tough terrain, repeated droughts and the quake’s ravages, life goes on here, still.
About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das
"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).